The California Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday, September 13, that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the second and final phase of the Playa Vista development was deficient in three particulars, reversing a January 2006 decision of the Los Angeles Superior Court that had approved the EIR.
As a result, “All construction activities on the project by any person are hereby ordered to be stayed effective immediately,” said the appellate court, which went on to direct the superior court “to issue an order enjoining all project activities that it finds would prejudice the City’s consideration or implementation of mitigation measures or alternatives and that could result in an adverse change to the physical environment, until the City [of Los Angeles] fully complies with CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act].”
Although important, the decision did not dramatically stop bulldozers in their tracks, inasmuch as it only affects the 111-acre phase two project, and virtually all of the construction now going on at Playa Vista is part of the 363-acre phase one project whose EIR was approved by the City of Los Angeles in September 1993 (with a December 1995 addendum). Steve Sugerman, spokesman for Playa Vista, told the Mirror that the only work underway on phase two was “preliminary grading work” and that work was “mostly completed.”
Rex Frankel, Director of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project (BEEP), one of the petitioners in the case, stated, “This victory for the people of Los Angeles is a victory for telling the truth on development decisions. The Court didn’t accept the developer’s masquerade about benefits to the public that didn’t actually exist.”
Tom Francis of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, another of the petitioners, stated, “The Court has given the [Los Angeles] City Council another chance to get it right. The Council can save taxpayers millions of dollars, clean up Santa Monica Bay and avoid increased traffic congestion by approving the alternative to more development at Ballona: a natural treatment wetland with parks.” Petitioner Surfrider Foundation’s California Policy Coordinator, Joe Geever, said, “We are ecstatic that this issue is finally seeing the light of day. Our major concern was that the City was approving more pressure on outdated sewage treatment capacity and unabated urban runoff.”
Playa Capital Company, LLC, owner of the Playa Vista development, issued a statement saying that it “is considering whether to continue the litigation process through a request for rehearing in the appellate court and/or a petition for California Supreme Court review.” President Steve Soboroff said, “Despite the professional project opponents, we remain confident that the Playa Vista vision will ultimately be realized.”
Last Thursday’s 114-page decision was rendered in two consolidated cases that challenged the City of Los Angeles’s September 2004 certification of an EIR and the City’s approval of phase two of the Playa Vista development. One action was brought by the City of Santa Monica, Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, Anthony Morales (of Gabrieleno/Tongva descent) and Surfrider Foundation; the other was brought by BEEP. Between the two cases, there were more than 20 separate attacks on the EIR and the approval.
The Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the City and Playa Capital on all but three of the attacks, and concluded “that the misleading analysis of land use impacts, failure to discuss preservation in place of historical archaeological resources, and failure to properly analyze wastewater impacts rendered the EIR as a whole deficient as an informational document, and that these matters collectively are not severable from the project as a whole.” The court therefore directed “the superior court to issue a peremptory writ of mandate ordering the City to vacate its certification of the EIR and its project approvals and make appropriate revisions to the EIR.”
Among the issues on which the City and Playa Vista prevailed were specific attacks relating to methane gas on the property and transportation impacts of the project.
The “misleading analysis of land use impacts” referred to a 35-page project description section in the EIR which repeatedly referred to the project as being smaller than earlier proposals, but failed to acknowledge that the phase two project actually increased development on that site as compared to the specific plan then in effect.
The historical archaeological resources on the site include intact cultural artifacts dating back over 3,500 years and animal and human remains. Although the EIR discussed alternative plans for dealing with the artifacts, the court found that the CEQA Guidelines expressly require a discussion of a preservation-in-place alternative (though such alternative need not be adopted), and the EIR failed to contain such a discussion.
With respect to wastewater impacts, the court said, “The EIR here failed to identify the intended and likely measures for the City to accommodate the project’s wastewater and failed to analyze the environmental impacts of employing those measures to treat the wastewater generated by the project.” The court also said that the EIR failed to address the potential cumulative impact of this and other developments on Santa Monica Bay, such as increasing the capacity of the Hyperion Treatment Plant.
LA City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Playa Vista, called the decision “a stunning development, and important news for our community,” and said he would be meeting “with the City Attorney and all relevant parties to fully digest and understand the implications of the ruling.”
The stay ordered by the appellate court is to remain in effect until the superior court issues its injunction, which could be much narrower than the stay, because it is to enjoin only those project activities “that it finds would prejudice the City’s consideration or implementation of mitigation measures or alternatives and that could result in an adverse change to the physical environment.”
While considering whether to pursue the litigation further, Playa Capital says that it “intends to work closely with the City of Los Angeles to define the process that will be necessary to address the three issues identified by the court.”